A polaroid camera spitting out a picture of a girl writing on a piece of paper next to a stack of contemporary romance novels, with a little thought bubble with a heart in it next to her head.
Design by Tamara Turner.

When I told my 75-year-old coworker that I wanted to write romance novels for a living, he gave me a knowing grin. “So one day, there’ll be books with scantily-clad people on the cover and your name underneath them?”

Yes, he actually used the words “scantily-clad.” To make matters worse, I thought it would be a good idea to explain to him that, nowadays, it’s the cutesy cartoon covers that feature the more scandalous stories. But regardless of the awkward silence that ended our conversation, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the image that came to his mind. There are many people who, when thinking about a romance novel, probably picture the Harlequin stereotype: A man and a woman posing suggestively, both of them attractive and at least one of them half-clothed. If not that, then “Fifty Shades of Grey” likely comes to mind, instead. The artwork on the front and back cover make it easy to infer that their contents are all sex and no substance.

I grew up being told, whether directly by people close to me or through the internet, that such books were “trashy,” and the only people reading them were sad housewives. But that couldn’t be further from the truth: As its own industry, the romance genre brings in over a billion dollars annually. Despite this reality, romance novels are still considered a “guilty pleasure” by some — things that you should be embarrassed to be seen holding at the bookstore. Given that it’s mostly women both publishing and reading romance, dismissing this successful business as “trash” or “mommy porn” is incredibly misogynistic (something I don’t have nearly enough time to talk about). Modern romance novels have so much more to offer than just sex. They’ve become so celebrated that reading them shouldn’t be considered an indulgence anymore.

Before it blew up into the giant influence it is today, I officially joined BookTok in the summer of 2020. One of my earlier videos poked fun at the genres I read most, and romance definitely took the top spot. Not much has changed since then — in fact, I’d say my time spent on the app reinforced my romance reading habits even more. It’s because of BookTok that I was introduced to authors like Emily Henry and Christina Lauren, who are now among my favorites. The characters and scenarios I’ve come across differ from the traditional “bodice-ripper” idea. Female leads are not naive virgins whose only positive aspect is their purity — they are career-driven women who aren’t dependent on their boyfriends. The men are not “rapists-turned-true-love heroes,” but family-oriented men who are smart and sarcastic, yet still show a vulnerable side to their love interests. Everyone is so well-developed that they truly do feel like they could be real people.

Romance writers are also creating leading characters that typically aren’t represented in the genre. Talia Hibbert’s “The Brown Sisters” series features plus-size women of Color — Chloe, a “chronically ill computer geek;” Dani, a bisexual Ph.D. student working on her thesis; and Eve, an endearing chef on the autism spectrum — and all three books have a great mix of sweet moments, steamy scenes and character development. Being plus-sized, chronically ill and a woman of Color herself, Hibbert has repeatedly stressed the importance of diversity in writing, especially romance. Similarly, Ali Hazelwood, another writer prominent in the genre, also draws on her own life experiences in her characters. She has a Ph.D. in neuroscience and recently became a professor, and her specialty is writing women in STEM as her leads — a minority not just in romance novels but in the field, as well. Everyone deserves to be swept off their feet, and these novels prove it.

This isn’t to say that sex scenes in romance novels are a thing of the past, but the attitude toward them is changing. Especially on social media, there is a more open conversation happening around smut. For one thing, it’s important to know that the “spiciness” of a book exists on a spectrum. Not every book that’s hyped up on BookTok is particularly detailed (though some are), but users have a ranking system that demonstrates where each romance book they recommend falls within that spectrum. That same variety exists in how users actually go about recommending those books. Some accounts convince viewers to read certain books by typing out their favorite parts from a spicy scene or posting pictures of the pages so you can read the scene for yourself. Other videos talk about smut in a broader sense, like making fun of people’s reactions to reading it. Regardless of how each user goes about presenting this content, the response it’s met with is a positive one, overall. Nobody’s embarrassed anymore to be talking about sex on the internet — even if it’s a scene in a book — because millions of people are liking and commenting how much they loved the book that scene is from. And yes, every once in a while someone will try to call people out for what they read, but all it does is get the reading community online to rally together. Rachel from “Friends” said it best: “There’s nothing wrong with a woman enjoying a little erotica! It’s a healthy expression of female sexuality, which, by the way, is something you’ll never understand.”

Anyone who reads romance novels on a regular basis knows that you can boil down every story to several basic components: the “meet-cute,” the buildup to a relationship, the 80% breakup/conflict and the happily ever after. So why bother essentially reading the same story over and over again? Because romances are comforting — not always in the sense that they’re an escape for a sad housewife, but that they offer hope that we may someday experience the same kind of love that we find in the pages of our beloved books. In today’s society of dating apps and hookup culture, it feels almost embarrassing for me to admit that the books I read have given me enormously high standards. But I’m so tired of being told that men like the ones in romance novels don’t exist in real life. I know they do, in their own way. I may not enter into a fake relationship that slowly becomes real over time or figure out that my worst enemy is madly in love with me and doesn’t actually hate me. I probably won’t date a celebrity, and it’s unlikely that any of my exes will show up out of the blue to tell me they want a second chance (not that I’d want them to, anyway). But someday, I’ll find someone who knows my worst flaws and loves me regardless. Someone who complements my personality and pushes me to be a better person. Someone who feels overwhelmed that I exist. I don’t know when that day will be, but until then, you can find me by the rom-com table at Barnes & Noble — and hopefully, one day, my books will be on display there, too.

Daily Arts Writer Hannah Carapellotti can be reached at hmcarp@umich.edu